When does it make sense to volunteer for a public shaming?

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April 9, 2018

When does it make sense to volunteer for a public shaming?

Written by Greg Wilkinson

Do you know something about your organization that would look bad if it were reported in the media? Of course you do, we all do. Organizations know things about themselves that would appear troubling if the world knew, or heard them out of context. And at some point we all should make a call – do we say something – or stay silent and hope it isn’t our turn to have 15 scorching minutes of fame in social media?

We see the consequences of those choices – or non-choices – every day, and the impact can be profound and sudden. Two organizations, both of them powerful and sophisticated global brands, have shown us the opposite sides of this coin recently: Facebook and National Geographic.

The proactive positioning of National Geographic about their racist past is an example of how to get out ahead of issues that you know can hurt you. Susan Goldberg, the editor of National Geographic described how they went about publicly facing their shame in her editorial.

For most people the racism that was built into National Geographic for decades was not an issue and didn’t have an impact on their perception of the organization today or its work. But for those in the organization it seems like it was a guilty secret (even though it was in the public record – and firmly in the memory banks for many of us of a certain vintage). They did their calculation and decided that their mission and their brand demanded that they address the race issue and to do so meant some serious self-flagellation with the world watching. And the result seems to be net positive brand building, at least so far.

Facebook on the other hand has shown us that they are either wildly arrogant and think we will all just feel their inherent rightness, or they are listening to their lawyers way, way too much. @BobPickard wrote a terrific piece describing how to avoid the sort of “PR Disaster” that has slashed $billions from the value of the company. Facebook made the choice over the last 18 months to let this crisis come to them instead of getting out in front of it.

What are the things that might cause you to consider going public – or not? A pattern of safety or environmental failures; negative indigenous relations; unsavoury executive behaviour; governance gaps; whistleblower claims?

How should your organization make the call on whether it will be better to fess up proactively or not? Here are six ideas and questions to ask.

1.       Make disclosure a conscious choice that the senior leadership of the organization buys in to. Decide – don’t just react.

2.       Is it “if” this thing blows up or is it really “when”? Get an outside perspective on the likelihood.

3.       Could the choice to be noble and forthcoming boomerang, and have the issue become a lot bigger than it deserves to be?

4.       Is proactive action simply the right thing to do?  Apply your organizational values as a test and if that doesn’t get you an answer ask – would you like to see your choice to not disclose debated by a panel on CBC or CNN?

5.       Listen to the lawyers without listening too much to the lawyers. Their job is to let you know the absolute minimum legally acceptable behaviour. That’s one data point, but only one in a complex calculation.

6.       Does the organization have the communication culture and capacity to manage the rapid and uncomfortable post-disclosure ebb and flow in social media?

As with many aspects of communication the right answer is often to say nothing. But if you don’t have a policy to ask yourself the hard questions, you run the risk of having both the underlying issue and your choice not to disclose become an unpleasant left/right combination of punches your reputation will take.